Larry the Substitute Oracle

“Everything is relative.”

Larry said this, hoping the woman in front of him wouldn’t know what he meant. It was something others did to Larry a lot, and it always worked. His smart friends could shut him up in a hurry by telling him something was relative; he never had an answer.

Now he sat in a dimly lit marble chamber facing Mrs. Lomax, who thought he was a much smarter man than he actually was. He saw that she expected wisdom from him. She wanted to know what the autumn harvest would bring. So he uttered the magic words that always reduced him to muteness, hoping it would do the same to her. It did not.

She stared back, directly into his shallow eyes. “The harvest is relative?” she asked.

“Um, yes,” Larry answered, knowing he would have to ride this train to its final station.

“Well?” she said from beneath a slanted eyebrow. “Relative to what?”

Larry was perfectly unprepared for this question. Mrs. Lomax continued to stare him down, until he desperately gave the first answer that came to mind: “The bounty of this year’s harvest will be relative to how much purring your cat does.” Larry hid his fear, and forced a solemn expression. Mrs. Lomax’s face softened. Somehow, Larry had found the right thing to say. She left, looking satisfied. Larry felt vindicated — relativity really was the formula! He threw his head back and breathed a heavy sigh.

He wasn’t sure exactly how he had ended up in this situation. Larry was friends with The Oracle, who received visitors from far and wide. The Oracle was known for always being right; everything he said turned out to be true.

But The Oracle was becoming weary of his oracularity. He was tired of his words being so important to everyone. “Oracularity” hadn’t even been a word until he had used it, purely in jest, and then everyone was saying it. The Oracle needed a break, and had pressed Larry into service. “Just wear this Oracle Hat,” he had said to Larry, handing him a complex white cloth arrangement with two peaks on it, “and tell people whatever you feel like. I don’t care. It’ll be fine. I’ve got to get away. I’m going to the coast for a while.”

Larry didn’t remember saying yes, but The Oracle was uncannily persuasive. And now here Larry was, sitting in The Oracle’s chamber, wearing the Oracle Hat, telling people things that made no sense to him, and hoping nobody would notice that he was a fraud.

Nobody entered after Mrs. Lomax. Larry was worn out by the encounter and felt lucky to have passed the test. He went downtown to get drinks in the tavern, still wearing the Oracle Hat. (The Oracle had stressed that he must never go out in public without it.) Larry ended up drinking with some men he had never met. They asked him a lot of difficult questions, but he got through the night by following his formula, and saying that everything was relative. When he was asked, “relative to what,” all he had to do was make something up.

To his pleasure, he found that the game got easier and easier. By the end of the night, he could scarcely remember most of the nonsense he had spoken. He told Mr. Morgan that his children’s future wealth was relative to how tan they kept their skin. When he came upon Mr. Brown making ribald boasts, he told Mr. Brown that the size of his manhood was relative to the amount of rainfall.

Full of momentum, Larry encountered Mr. Lomax, husband of the woman he had advised earlier. Mr. Lomax, a vegetable farmer, was talking about his carrot harvest. “Carrots are relative,” Larry said, impressing the man with his wisdom. “Relative to what?” the man asked. “Relative to how sexually satisfied your wife is,” Larry answered recklessly.

Over the next few days, unexpected things happened. Word spread that the autumn harvest depended on Mrs. Lomax’s cat. All the local farmers sent their wives to visit Mrs. Lomax, bearing treats and catnip. The cat received no end of love and affection, and spent a great deal of time purring. The harvest boomed.

Then Mrs. Lomax’s cat grew weary of attention. She developed a terrible catnip hangover and a surly attitude. She began clawing and biting visitors, and refused to purr for any reason — and that was when torrential rainfall began, and crop yields collapsed.

That night, Larry realized what was going on. Could the words he uttered while wearing the Oracle Hat be coming true? He took the hat off. Hesitantly, he said out loud: “The brightness of the moon is relative to the height of my hand.” He raised his hand up and down; nothing happened. Then he put the Oracle Hat back on and said it again. This time, as he raised his hand, the moon grew brighter! He lowered his hand, and the moon grew dim.

The next day a crowd came to The Oracle’s chamber and asked Larry what to do about the terrible harvest. The fields lay decimated, consumed by mud. Mrs. Lomax’s cat had vanished and was feared dead. Mr. Morgan’s children were getting no sunlight, and were destitute and starving. Larry was hung over from another night of binge drinking and reckless proclamations, and hated everything about the Oracle Hat.

That was when The Oracle returned, fresh and rested from his vacation. He was horrified by the strange events all around him, and realized that he had made a terrible mistake by entrusting his vital work to Larry. He saw a tree whose leaves changed color according to the Mayor’s mood. He saw a local woman’s chest enlarging and shrinking as a nearby man opened and closed a book. He saw an old lady whose weight expanded and contracted in proportion with how much she overfed her greedy cats, which was darkly amusing, but could not be condoned. The Oracle hurried to find out what other atrocities Larry had perpetrated with his borrowed oracularity.

When confronted, Larry could scarcely remember what other absurd relations he had declared, but after some interrogation, The Oracle had learned enough to understand what he had to do.

Remembering that it had just rained heavily, the Oracle instructed the fretting Mr. Lomax to send his wife to the newly prideful Mr. Brown, though he mercifully did not say what for. After only a few minutes behind closed doors, the color of the sky became oddly darker. Moments later, as Mrs. Lomax cried out in satisfaction, a deluge of large, healthy carrots began to fall from the sky. The townspeople rejoiced, and began collecting carrots from the streets. Mr. Lomax’s fields were piled with layer upon layer of beautiful, golden carrots. Finally, The Oracle told Mr. Morgan to make juice from his carrots, and get his starving children to drink heavy doses of carrot juice until their skin turned orange. Mr. Morgan did as instructed, and soon his children’s fortunes improved. They began earning generous annuities from trust funds that were suddenly discovered, and they had their choice of scholarship offers from the best universities.

Once all this was done, and the anxious townspeople had departed, The Oracle put on his Oracle Hat. Then he turned wrathfully to Larry. “You idiot!” he sputtered. “You never, ever tell them relative to what! You just leave them wondering, so they think you’re smarter than they are! I am going to make your life hell for the mess you’ve made. From now on, you will experience massive rectal pain in amounts directly related to your own stupidity!”

“Not so fast, Oracle,” Larry replied calmly. “You see, once I finally understood what was going on, I put on that hat, and I made a few pronouncements of my own. First, I foretold that I would receive wealth and adoration in amounts relative to your own humiliation and resentment. And second, I stated that that cursed Hat’s power would take on an inverse relation to your own heart rate. Meaning: as long as your heart continues to beat, that Oracle Hat is perfectly useless, and it will leave the world untroubled by your oracularity, which, by the way, is no longer a word. You might want to learn, I don’t know, plumbing or something.”

Indifferent to the shock and outrage now coming out of the sputtering Oracle, Larry turned his attention to the doorway, where an agent of the local lottery was trying to get his attention, along with several admiring beauty contest winners. “And now,” he said, “I’ve got to go. It’s going to be a busy day for me. But thank you, O Great Oracle, thank you ever so much for bullying me into occupying the shadow beneath your stupid looking Hat. I’ve learned quite a lot from it, and the next time somebody tells me everything is relative, I’m going to tell him to go fuck himself. Goodbye.” And Larry walked out of the Oracle’s chamber, never to return.

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